Harnessing the Aspergerian mind (and heart)
by Jean Seah | June 13, 2018
After reading a friend's blog over two years ago (“Asperger's from the Inside”), I began to feel like pieces of a puzzle were clicking into place. I had just been through a very trying time dealing with mentally ill people who kept dumping their family problems or academic struggles on me, and I wondered why people kept using me as an emotional sponge. I had also always been hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, preferring quiet, calm environments, preferably with natural light.
Contrary to a belief popularized by British professor Simon Baron-Cohen, we Aspies (people with Asperger's Syndrome) do have empathy. We tend to have a superabundance of affective empathy. That is, we absorb the feelings of people around us. Psychology professor Dr Steve Taylor terms this “deep empathy”, where your identity merges with that of the suffering person. He contrasts this with cognitive or “shallow” empathy, where you are able to recognize another person's state of mind through their expression and you know how to react appropriately, although you may not really care about their feelings.
In my experience, that has been very true. From my time in school, I was always the “listening ear”, the person whom my friends could rely on to listen to their troubles. A blind friend in college said that just holding my hand made her feel calm when she was agitated about an assignment deadline; another friend, usually very macho, also asked to hold my hand when he was sorrowing. However, I find that when I want to pay a compliment or offer condolences, I can get bashful, and may come across as insincere.
A friend commented that it was probably a good thing that I have only discovered Asperger's Syndrome after reaching adulthood, because I was able to go through childhood without thinking I had a disability. Indeed, I am glad that I attended excellent, supportive schools where I made marvelous friends and enjoyed my education, participating fully in sporting and cultural activities blissfully unaware of any handicap (although I was always terrible at ball games). Sure, every year the teachers wrote in my report card that I was “too quiet”, but they also noted “diligence” and “neat work”.
Thanks to my particular Asperger's traits, I have near-eidetic (photographic) memory, hyper-focus, enhanced pattern recognition and insane attention to detail. I am happiest when immersed in hours of solitary research and enjoy repetitive tasks like creating bibliographies or categorizing items. These gifts enabled me to flourish academically, though I was often stressed by fellow students begging me to proofread their assignments at the eleventh hour.
Sadly, some other people are not as fortunate. My fiancé, who has also been recently diagnosed with Asperger's, was bullied all through school from the age of seven, and struggled to form and maintain friendships. As he also had undiagnosed ADHD and had suffered significant trauma, he was unable to concentrate in class and flunked high school. By an incredible stroke of luck, he has finally found full-time gainful employment at the age of 32, as a laborer.
I have seen home-schooled Aspies struggle to make friends and complete assignments at university level. It was terrible listening to their self-loathing complaints, that they were weird and that there was something wrong with them.
Like every other human condition, Asperger's comes with pros and cons. Once you realize what you are good at, you stop trying to compare yourself with other people and simply flourish in your own niche. When I was 13, I embraced my quirkiness, taking the nickname “Zee Mad Pancake” as part of a group of eight friends I called “Zee Foodstuff”. I gloried in The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. After two years of nagging by a friend (“Kimberley Zee Cranberry”), I finally created a blog, and then I found my voice – plus a new skill in tinkering with HTML, helping my friends design their blogs.
Another friend said that I “don't look autistic” and that I should not mention Asperger's because it may affect my employment prospects. Yet, my Aspie friends include doctors, teachers, accountants, engineers, artists and scientists. People with Asperger's have always been around – many Aspies are found in Silicon Valley, working contentedly on the latest technological breakthroughs. Famous Aspies include Sir Anthony Hopkins, Courtney Love, Adam Young (“Owl City”), and professor of animal science Temple Grandin.
Research and diagnosis has been skewed toward males, because females tend to be more socially adept and able to mask our quirks. For instance, when I tired of socializing at large gatherings or if I was trying to avoid a persistent admirer, I would retreat behind my camera and steal off into a corner on the pretext of securing a photograph.
The perception that people with Asperger's or autism lack empathy probably comes from the common self-preservation mechanism that we employ when overwhelmed by others' emotions. We shut down, or we flee. Also, half of the autistic population has alexithymia, difficulty identifying one's own feelings.
In my case, my love of books probably honed my cognitive empathy, the ability to recognize someone else's emotions and respond accordingly. When I was young, it was easy to become extremely emotionally invested in a story, and my moods would fluctuate with the character's fortunes. Indeed, reading is recommended for building Theory of Mind skills in children.
My hope is that with increased awareness of Asperger's Syndrome and autism (which share similar outward traits but have distinct biological differences), people will come to realize that there is nothing to be afraid of, and celebrate neurodiversity as a normal and natural variation in humanity. Then society can harness the great gifts of those who may appear somewhat different and strange.
Jean Seah is a social media manager and freelance writer based in Queensland, Australia. She is also chief editor of the American site Ignitum Today.